This isn’t about religion, so I will beg your pardon and tuck the bulk of it out of sight. But Gail Collins’ column in the New York Times today reminded me of one of the lasting lessons I took from covering a presidential campaign. Back in 1987 and 1988, I was the Dukakis beat reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and as is a requirement of the job, I had to write a profile of the candidate prior to Georgia’s Super Tuesday primary. And what I wrote pretty well followed the script that the Dukakis campaign had devised for the candidate—at least, I realized after the fact that I had done that.
The script, briefly, was that Dukakis was a really smart and honest and committed politician, but somewhat on the humorless and rectitudinous side, above getting down in the trenches and pressing the flesh and mixing it up. And as a result of that, he lost his first gubernatorial reelection campaign to a palooka named Eddie King, who was a classic hale-fellow-well-met pol whose attacks the Duke thought were beneath him to respond to. But, the storyline went, Michael had learned his lesson from that bitter defeat—and become more human and knew that he always needed to respond to an attack and like that. Well, of course, Dukakis hadn’t changed at all. He was still humorless and rectitudinous as hell, and when the George H.W. Bush campaign attacked him (remember Willie Horton?), he again thought it was beneath him to respond, and so he got himself beat.
Collins knows the game, and makes the point that Hillary Clinton started out with a good script about how she had learned from her mistakes in the first Clinton term and was in a position to run a proper, under control White House as the historic first woman president who would do all the good Clinton things without the Clinton chaos. And, she concludes, with Bill running around like a maniac attacking Obama and the press, the bad old story line is back, and if Hillary wants to get back to the earlier version, “she’s got to send him home and go back to the original plotline.”
My takeaway from the Dukakis campaign is it’s not so easy for middle-aged politicians to get away from the real plotline. Because it tends to be about who they actually are.